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More South African Firefighters Head to Canada

FILE - In this image released by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Chapleau 3 wildfire burns near the township of Chapleau, Ontario, on Sunday, June 4, 2023.

WASHINGTON — South Africa has deployed a second contingent of 200 firefighters and 13 managers to help fight Canadian wildfires that spread a band of thick haze and smoke across the northeast United States and causing the worse air quality levels in decades.

The second team arrived Thursday, as according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, 449 fires are burning across Canada as of June 12, with 219 "burning out of control." Nearly five million hectares have already burned.

Nearly 5,000 firefighting personnel are deployed in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec, and Canadian Defense Minister Anita told a briefing this week that more army members will be deployed to Edson.

The additional South African firefighters came in response to an urgent request from Canada’s Fire Center, Trevor Abrahams, managing director of the South African firefighters in Alberta, told VOA earlier this week.

"This is one of the worst wildfire seasons in Canada ever," Abrahams said.

The firefighters' first priority is to protect property and lives, second priority is to develop a perimeter around the fire and to contain it with combination of resources, including aerial water bombing, bulldozers and creating "breaks in the fire," Abrahams explained.

Canada’s fire season continues through September.

The first South African team of 200 firefighters and 13 managers are fighting a wildfire in Edson, a town in Alberta about 180 kilometers west of Edmonton, where an evacuation order remains in effect.

Abrahams said the weather has turned hotter and drier, making conditions "quite hazardous," and triggering flareups, which occurred days ago during high winds.

All firefighters in Edson had to be evacuated.

This marks the fifth collaboration between Canada and South Africa under an MOU signed between the two countries in 2019. Through experience the firefighters know how to work well together, Abrahams noted.

"In these large fires you become part of a larger team, and right now we’ve had management teams from Ontario, we’ve had American firefighters, and Canadian firefighters working side by side with us."

South Africa's firefighters are from "Working on Fire," an organization funded by the country's environmental ministry that recruits and trains unemployed people aged between 18 and 35.

South Africa is just one of the nations coming to Canada's aid, with Australia, the United States, Mexico, New Zealand, France, Spain and Portugal also among those sending firefighters.

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters.